Sunday, August 30, 2015

Walking Alongside: Remembering a Friend

My friend the Rev. Laurie Thomas passed away this month. As I've been thinking about her and our times together, one memory that sticks out for a number of reasons is the time we traveled to Boston together for a weekend. I asked Laurie's permission, which she granted, to write up the experience as a blog post, but for some unknown reason I never did.

We encountered in the course of a weekend so many little, and big, accessibility issues and issues of injustice or prejudice, that my head was spinning. I was angry--furious--at the encounters. Laurie just shook her head at me. This was everyday life for her, and not out of the ordinary at all. Besides, she explained, she didn't have the luxury of being angry. If you're angry, people won't want to help you, and in some of these situations she might require help of people who don't know her. "Nobody likes the angry gimp," she said to me.

The first instance we encountered was before we even left Detroit. We were at the airport and decided to get some lunch before the flight left. We went over to the nearest restaurant to our gate, and the hostess looked at us and said -- to me -- "She can't bring that in here." I looked at the hostess incredulously. "What do you mean she can't bring it in here? That's ridiculous. She doesn't get out of that. It's like a wheelchair. You have to let her in here with it." Laurie just looked at me in amusement. The hostess backed down as I pointed out a table by the door that we could easily get to and from.

There were other small issues as we boarded and exited the plane. When we got off the plane, they had managed to switch some switch such that her scooter wouldn't work. They wanted to transfer her to a wheelchair, but Laurie wasn't having that. Eventually we got the scooter, and went out get our transportation to the hotel.

We were headed to stay at Eliot & Pickett House, the B&B that was then owned by the UUA. It was right off the subway line, but the subway stop there is not accessible, so that wasn't an option. The bus system will send buses that can accommodate wheelchairs and scooters, but apparently you have to have a special card with them, which as a non-resident, Laurie did not. The UUA had phoned around for us, and determined that a cab was the best way to go. They were assured that there were cabs that could handle the scooter, and that all we needed to do was go to the cab stand and tell them we needed an accessible cab.
So off we went, and they promptly ordered us an accessible cab. Well, accessible it was not. The back was too small to fit the scooter in. No problem, they said, we'll order a larger one. The next one came. This could handle the scooter, but not with Laurie on it. The scooter would need to be forced into the back. And it was a van, so a higher seat to get up into, which Laurie couldn't easily transfer into. In fact, she couldn't get into it at all. So they sent it off. And while we were waiting for a third cab to come, the cab stand manager got a good idea. He suggested we call two cabs -- one that the scooter would fit into, and one that Laurie would be able to transfer into. I would then ride with the scooter, to make sure it got there okay. We agreed that if the third cab didn't accommodate her, that this is what we would need to do. And so it was. We departed with me with the scooter, and Laurie in a second cab. The only problem then was that the second cab got lost trying to find Eliot & Pickett House. I sat outside on Laurie's scooter while the minutes ticked away, worrying about her. At last she arrived. The cab driver, having driven in circles, charged her outrageously. So we were there at last, having only spent triple what a cab ride should have been.

Eliot & Pickett House has a ramp that looks like an after-thought and takes you in a side door around the capitol side of the building. But the ramp was no obstacle, and the staff was prompt and friendly with help. I can't say enough nice things about the staff at Eliot & Pickett, in fact. The best thing about the trip was that Eliot & Pickett House was completely accessible for everywhere Laurie needed to go to. I could barely fit into the amazingly small elevator to get to my room, but the room Laurie stayed in was well-appointed for one on wheels. "It's the legacy of Helen Bishop," Laurie told me. Helen Bishop was the former District Executive of the Central MidWest District, and, indeed, responsible for many a church's accessibility improvements, as they struggled with making themselves a building their own DE could enter. As for Eliot & Picket House, its only problem was a lift that was required to get to one part of the building that the staff had forgotten how to work, or had to find the key for. But Segree Bowen quickly solved it, and showed us, and so we could move around the building freely.

Once we were settled in, it was time to find dinner. There are a number of restaurants within walking distance of the UUA, and obviously we didn't want to go anywhere that would require transportation, so we set off down the street. Some of the crosswalks in the area of Beacon Hill aren't ramped, surprisingly. Many of the buildings in the area had small steps at the threshold, making it difficult for the scooter, but the third restaurant we came to finally had a flat entrance, and so we ate there. It was a bit pricey, but perhaps everything was around there. At least the food was good. We ate there again the next day, grateful for a place we could enter and exit easily.

The next day, we went to visit the UUA. This visit is why I didn't shed a tear when the UUA moved to a new building. Because after this experience, it was clear to me that they needed a better building. It's a short flight of stairs to get into 25 Beacon from the front door. Wheelchairs have to go in through a narrow alley around the corner of the block. I went in the front door while Laurie went in the alley. This way I could alert the receptionist that someone was coming in that way. And so I did. I went in and told the woman at the front desk that I had a friend who would be coming in that way, and asked her to please help make sure that she got in successfully. I sat down and waited. And waited. Finally, I asked the receptionist, "Do you see her? Is she there yet?" The receptionist said, "Oh yes, she's been there. It looks like she's having trouble with the gate." And then didn't move. "Um, is there something we can do?" The receptionist said, "Oh yes, you can go let her in." "Um... I have no idea how to get there?" Finally, the receptionist got up, showed me through the building to a not-very-obvious side exit, which I think was through a side room to my memory, where there, indeed, Laurie was waiting on the opposite side of a closed gate. The gate had no call button or push button to open it or alert someone -- the call button was on the other side of the gate when you got to the building. Had I not been advocating for her, it felt like the receptionist might have been happy to watch her sit there all day. It was not a warm welcome to our religious headquarters.

And so we came into the UUA's barely-accessible building. We looked around the bookshop, which had barely enough space to maneuver. Parts of the building are inaccessible, so we didn't stray far inside, just meeting with the people we had come to see. And then we left by the narrow alley, off to lunch at the accessible restaurant.

Returning to the airport, we knew, would be a challenge. So we carved out much of our day for the return trip, anxious not to miss our flights. We decided to call a cab to get us about four hours before the flight would take off. We figured one hour to get to the airport, one hour to get to our gate, and two hours for hassle. The UUA helped again by calling ahead and finding a cab company that assured us they could handle a cab with the dimensions Laurie specified to them. The cab came. It was too small. We had that cab driver radio back to his headquarters, and they sent out a second cab. It arrived. It was too small. I think we did that again, and then it was the third cab driver that we then said to him that we would do what we did before, with taking two cabs. He wasn't happy about waiting around for us for a fourth cab to come, but by now time was ticking. Eventually he hailed down another cab from another cab company that was passing by on the small little street Eliot & Pickett is on. And off we went with our two cabs to the airport. I tipped him extra for the hassle, because he helped out a great deal, and lifting the scooter in and out of the cab alone is a struggle. And unlike last time, this cab driver was good about sticking with the other guy so that Laurie could get right on her scooter when we got to the airport. And we got to our flight barely on time. Two hours of hassle, indeed.

These are just some of the struggles I watched Laurie face while we were traveling together. There seemed to be a million little hassles and problems we encountered at every turn. It took a team of support between me and the UUA to make the trip possible. And throughout it, Laurie met the obstacles cheerfully, with good humor. It was me getting angrier, more frustrated, and irritable with every encounter. But this wasn't uncommon for her. She lived with these injustices and obstacles all the time. I only had to handle them for a weekend.